Once upon a time, Palo Alto was seen as a leader in sustainable planning in California. City leaders expressed and acted upon support for bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly communities, and backed mass transportation solutions from Caltrain to high speed rail (which the current council backed when they endorses Proposition 1A last year).
Unfortunately, the vocal NIMBYs in that community have begun to jeopardize the city's position of leadership in support of sustainable and forward-looking policies. Led by those who continue to sow the misinformation about HSR acting as some kind of "Berlin Wall," Palo Alto is in danger of opposing high speed rail outright, and in the process fatally undermining Caltrain - and therefore, fatally undermining the city's own stated commitments to mass transit.
This November, Palo Alto voters will fill five seats on the city's nine-member council. Unsurprisingly, high speed rail is a major issue in the race, as evidenced by this report of a recent candidates' forum:
"I was opposed to high-speed rail in November, and I voted no on the bond," candidate Leon Leong said, referring to state Proposition 1A, which launched the rail plans with $10 billion in funding. "I believe the city needs to budget funds for litigation, for advocacy in Sacramento, hiring lobbyists, as well as in the federal government, to either get the route changed or get it stopped in San Jose."
The comment drew a burst of cheers from an audience that had been asked to hold its applause. For most of the two-hour forum at the Palo Alto Art Center, sponsored by a group of Palo Alto neighborhood associations, the crowd obeyed. Not when it came to high-speed rail....
Leong and a few others said the city should be pushing back harder against the California High Speed Rail Authority, the board charged with implementing the plans.
Tim Gray, who lives along the tracks, said, "I've got my back against the rail and I'm going to keep on fighting. I'm like a mother bear with her cubs."
What exactly does Leong want the city to do? Find some grounds for another frivolous lawsuit? People like Leong and Gray haven't accepted the fact that high speed rail is going to happen, and think that it is best to waste everyone's time - and the city's money - battling it instead of determining the best way to live with it.
Gray's position is even more amusing. He's not protecting "his cubs" - he thinks he is protecting his property values, as if government existed for that purpose alone and that everyone else in Palo Alto should sacrifice their need for affordable, sustainable transportation in order to pad his assets. Ironically, HSR would boost his property values - unless there's a huge pool of buyers out there eagerly awaiting the chance to live next to a railroad with loud horns and spewing diesel fumes at all hours of the day.
John Hackmann pulled out an oversized white poster board on which he had written in magic marker, "No to rail wall." Like Leong, he said he voted against the bond measure, as did candidate Chris Gaither.
If Palo Alto residents believe that the ability to write on a poster board is qualification to serve on city council, well, OK...
Karen Holman said an underground high-speed rail line might not be much better, even if the city could afford it.
"Opposing the above-ground option is a no-brainer," she said. But an underground rail line comes with its own problems, she said, including possible eminent domain takings due to construction and conflicts with freight trains that now use the Caltrain tracks.
Holman touted her experience on the city's planning and transportation commission, saying it prepared her to pick apart environmental reports. The report approved by the high-speed rail authority last year is "not a serious document," she said.
Holman is actually raising a good point here - a tunnel is no panacea for Palo Alto. It would likely mean greater eminent domain takings (whereas an above-grade solution will produce hardly any at all in Palo Alto), and it would indeed cause conflicts with freight trains that could hinder or block the city's ability to replace the at-grade railroad with development to help pay for the tunnel.
On the other hand, Holman shows her lack of familiarity with environmental and mass transit planning when she calls the statewide program EIR "not a serious document." For someone who touts her experience on the planning and transportation committee, this is a serious charge to make - and it is utterly ridiculous. The judge in Atherton v. CHSRA found that the EIR conformed to CEQA requirements, with the exception of the matter of the UPRR ROW between San José and Gilroy. For a massive statewide project EIR, that's actually a pretty good performance in court.
One candidate took some credit for publicizing the rail plan's potential pitfalls before most others, including the city council, saw any cause for concern. Nancy Shepherd pointed out that she hosted a heavily attended meeting for her house in the Southgate neighborhood, a meeting some say sparked Palo Alto's activist movement on the issue.
"I would like to see the city council play a much larger role, perhaps even hiring our own engineer" to evaluate a key upcoming environmental document, she said. That way, she said, the city would not be "hoodwinked, like we were last November when we were voting on this."
It's a shame Shepherd prefers to repeat the dishonest "hoodwinked" claim. That implies an intent to deceive which wasn't there; she should retract the accusation. Palo Alto voters had plenty of resources at their disposal, including copious amounts of local TV and print news coverage, to explain to them the details of the HSR project when they voted en masse to approve Prop 1A last November.
And that raises the real issue at stake in the Palo Alto election. It isn't a battle over HSR. It's really a battle over who will be allowed to benefit from city policies for the next several decades. It is about who gets to enjoy economic security and prosperity - and who is going to be denied those benefits.
What the anti-HSR candidates are saying to Palo Alto is that the only people who should benefit from city council policy are those who already own homes near the Caltrain corridor. Everyone else, whether homeowner or renter, young or old, student or townie, rich or poor, comes second to those privileged few, who are mobilizing to seize control of the city council.
As Michael Scanlon pointed out at the Menlo Park Town Hall and as Bob Doty reinforced at the Palo Alto teach-in, without high speed rail bringing the money to electrify Caltrain, Caltrain is not likely to survive.
It sure doesn't sound like any of these candidates are even aware of that fact. If they are, it doesn't seem as if they much care. By prioritizing their own property values over the needs of everyone else in Palo Alto, they're happy to consign other city residents to dependence on ever-rising oil prices and automobile congestion, as well as condemning the city to continue to suffer from the deadly toll of at-grade tracks.
Palo Alto, like California, stands at a crossroads. It has two basic choices. The first is what the anti-HSR candidates propose: preservation of the 20th century model of urban living, dependent on the automobile. It is an obsolete model, one directly responsible for the present economic crisis and guaranteed to produce economic stagnation and immiseration as fewer and fewer people can make ends meet in a place dependent on oil and lacking sustainable methods to move people around.
The second choice is what other visionaries, including some of the council candidates, desire for Palo Alto. It is the realization of the city's environmental and smart planning projects begun in recent decades but now in serious jeopardy at this election. It is a choice that would produce a sustainable city, much less dependent on oil, with a vibrant downtown, a community where the railroad is a permeable yet safe feature instead of a deadly and divisive barrier. It is a city where economic opportunity is available to the many and not to the few.
I have no idea how this will turn out. NIMBYs are notoriously successful at drawing attention and making themselves look more numerous than they actually are. Palo Alto DID vote for Prop 1A in large numbers, and the recent efforts to provide sensible HSR planning have been very well-attended by residents eager to find a way to make HSR work for Palo Alto. Perhaps those who want a better future for Palo Alto will outnumber those who want to abandon that future so that a small group of people can enjoy the benefits of the present for a couple more years.
We'll know the answer in November.